The board of the Jewish National Fund in Israel voted on Thursday to allocate 61 million shekels ($18 million) for the purchase of Palestinian-owned land in the Jordan Valley in the West Bank. It is part of a larger transaction that the Israeli Defense Ministry is eager to complete.
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Israel declared the land a closed military zone in 1969, barring its owners from approaching it. Israel began permitting Jewish settlers to farm it in the 1980s. It has been used to grow dates for export ever since. In 2018, after this came to light, some of the land’s Palestinian owners petitioned Israel’s High Court of Justice to lift the military order and remove the settlers.
At around the same time, at the urging of the Defense Ministry, the JNF, the Jerusalem-based Zionist institution known in Hebrew as Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, bought a portion of the land from a Palestinian who claims to own it and to have other legal rights to the balance of the land. The purchase was halted due to criticism of the organization’s acquisition of land in the West Bank. According to JNF sources, the ministry recently renewed its request for the organization to complete the transaction.
The transaction is to be revived after the board of JNF, which is a separate organization from New York-based JNF USA, approved the funding for the purchase. Board members representing the Labor Party and Prime Minister Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid backed the move.
JNF officials declined to comment on the background leading to the revival of the deal, citing a gag order.
The original contract was signed by Himanuta, a JNF subsidiary, for the purchase in several stages of about 1,000 dunams (250 acres) from the Palestinian who claimed to own it. Before the transaction was halted, the agency bought a plot comprised of 411 dunams.
Haaretz has learned that pressure had been applied to revive the transaction prior to a High Court hearing on the case in June of this year. Ahead of the vote on Thursday, the JNF board was told that it needed to approve the funding to pave the way for a compromise to which the organization’s management had given its consent.
At all of the hearings of the Palestinians’ petition, the state argued that it didn’t know how the settlers had begun cultivating the Palestinian land or how the state or the Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization had allocated it to them. “It was decreed that we direct the process under a cloud of legal uncertainty [as to] how, decades ago, the settlers got to a situation in which they worked the parcel,” Avi Milikovsky, a lawyer representing the state, told the court in the June hearing.
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Supreme Court President Esther Hayut later asked: “Given that you cannot explain how the land was given to those to whom it was given, does that give them the right to remain there forever?” At prior hearings, Hayut criticized the state for turning over privately owned land and then claiming it didn’t know how that had happened.
Between 2018 and 2019, Himanuta bought land in the West Bank without the knowledge of the board of Keren Kayemeth, which has members from both the political left and right. The funding was originally earmarked for land purchases “in Jerusalem and the periphery.”
When the transactions – including the one for the date plantation – were made public, they were halted. An internal audit by former Deputy State Prosecutor Yehoshua Lemberger found irregularities in JNF officials’ conduct in connection to the transactions. Among the criticism was that they had a conflict of interest, had overstepped their authority and had ordered the diversion of funds for West Bank land purchases.
The JNF did not adopt the report’s recommendations and another report concluded that the JNF executives had acted in good faith.
The Defense Ministry issued a statement following Haaretz's request for comment, saying that, as with all High Court petitions, the state and the ministry are addressing the petition in question on its merits.